After months of speculation about a rift and rumours of a failed dismissal last week, it would appear that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has finally confirmed that the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, is to be replaced — and he is not the only one.
Asked by Italy’s Rai TV about Zaluzhnyi’s future, Zelenskyy discussed a wider reshuffle across the government and military, saying that a “reset, a new beginning is necessary […] not about a single person, but about the direction of the country’s leadership […] I mean a replacement of a series of state leaders, not just in a single sector like the military.”
The loss of the highly popular Zaluzhnyi from the front line will undoubtedly lower morale among both Ukrainian troops and the wider public — polling conducted in December found that 92% of Ukrainians trust the general, compared to 77% for Zelenskyy, while only 2% would actively support such a dismissal. This blow comes at a particularly trying time for Ukraine’s army, as it struggles on through severe “shell hunger”, with the EU unable to meet its target of a million shells by March and political wrangling in Washington halting US aid.
Zaluzhnyi has strong personal ties with his Western and Nato counterparts, with a wider reshuffle likely to disrupt key relationships just when they are most needed to ensure supplies are delivered to the front line. Zelenskyy reportedly walked back over an attempted sacking of Zaluzhnyi last week after pressure from dismayed Western partners, while Kyiv’s government volatility will likely be seized upon by sceptical US Republicans eager for excuses not to fund Ukraine.
The shake-up may at least have the benefit of ending a rivalry that has destabilised Ukraine’s military structure. In December, sources claimed that Zaluzhnyi was struggling to command the army as a split emerged between those subordinate to him — perceived by Zelenskyy as “the bad ones” — and those loyal to Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi. As such, the President’s reshuffle may serve as a purge of Zaluzhnyi’s men that at least puts an end to creeping splits within the military command and promotes much-needed battlefield unity. However, the question remains as to who Zelenskyy appoints to replace “the bad ones”.
Summoned to meet the President last week, Zaluzhnyi reportedly complained of Zelenskyy being surrounded by advisers whose assessments of Ukraine’s battlefield progress are excessively positive. Those close to the general lamented that presidential advisors have “poured him a warm bath, outside of which it is difficult to see the realities of the front”.
One reason for the rift was this division between realism and positivity — in November, Zelenskyy publicly rebuked Zaluzhnyi for describing the war as a “stalemate” to the Economist, even though Ukraine’s President now uses the term himself. It may therefore be a cause for concern that Zelenskyy is seemingly using this opportunity to surround himself with even more “positivity”, in stark contrast to the outspoken and realistic counterweight Zaluzhnyi provided. In his own words, Zelenskyy is now seeking to ensure all in Ukraine’s command “push in the same direction, convinced of victory” and have “the right positive energy”.
Zelenskyy’s interventions in the military have had negative impacts before. In December, sources close to Zaluzhnyi rallied against Zelenskyy’s interference in the military, not least his habit of bypassing the army chief to communicate directly with commanders. After the President last year dramatically sacked regional recruitment officers in a bid to publicly crack down on corruption, Zaluzhnyi complained openly of the frontline difficulties sparked by the loss of such experienced “professionals”.
The shake-up may also signal that Zelenskyy needs unity for an imminent challenge. Russia will likely expand conscription after March’s presidential election, and reportedly aims to recruit 400,000 men this year. Ukraine’s parliament is now debating mobilisation, with the country’s political and military wings having last year both tried to distance themselves from talk of conscripting between 450,000 and 500,000 men. Zelenskyy’s changing of the high command may be an attempt to surround himself with “yes-men”, but it may also be a necessary precursor to an unpopular conscription campaign.